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May 9, 2011

SUCCESS IN THE CIRCLE - Despite following a legend, Tech pitcher Kenzie Roark will depart Virginia Tech ranked in the top five of just about every school pitching category

By: Jimmy Robertson

Kenzie Roark

In 2007, an 18-year-old girl from a small town east of Nashville arrived on Virginia Tech’s sprawling campus, invited to the party that ended up being the 2008 softball season.

It was a five-month stretch that was as exhilarating as it gets. There was the stunning, world-captivating victory over the USA national team in an exhibition, snapping the Americans’ 185-game pre-Olympic domination of opponents. There was the ACC championship, a second straight coronation in a league that had been ruled by the queens from places such as Georgia Tech and Florida State.

And there were thrilling victories over Tennessee (in the NCAA Regional) and Michigan (in the NCAA Super Regional). Before last call at this bash, this young college student and her Tech teammates found themselves in uncharted territory, making the school’s first trip to the Women’s College World Series.

She made small contributions when asked, but mostly she learned from Angela Tincher, the program’s greatest player of all time and the belle of this particular ball. It made for quite a fun time – and the memories of the festivities remain tattooed in her brain.

“It was fun, winning an ACC championship and going to a College World Series and winning at UT [Tennessee],” Tech pitcher Kenzie Roark said. “My first year was so fun.

“It was a learning experience for sure. Every person is the standout from where they’re from, and once you’re a freshman, you have to blend in. In my case, Angela Tincher was here, and she was just phenomenal. It was a learning experience.”

Now, four years later, Roark finds herself in a similar position. She is a couple of months shy of 22 years old. She’s a senior and a captain. She, along with teammate and reserve Alicia Field, are the last threads from that wonderful season.

Roark, a native of Mount Juliet, Tenn., has made the most of her final campaign. She is 16-7, with a 3.23 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 160.1 innings heading into the ACC Championships held in Atlanta in mid-May. The Hokies, featuring a lineup comprised of a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing major roles, led all but one league team in total victories, yet inconsistency in league play has them in the middle of the pack in the race for the conference crown.

This season has been the latest installment of an up-and-down career for Roark, who came to Tech after Hokies’ head coach Scot Thomas found her at an ASA (Amateur Softball Association of America) tournament in Seattle. She knew nothing of Virginia Tech at the time, but used the Internet to educate herself on the institution and the Hokies’ softball program.

“My initial thought was that he [Thomas] was really nice, and I wanted to look up the school,” Roark said. “My dad was like, ‘They’ve got a pretty good football team.’

“But when I looked up stuff on the softball team, I was like, ‘Mom, Dad, this team is good. This would be a good spot.’”

Perhaps unfairly, many expected her to replace Tincher and her school-record 123 career wins. Tincher, the 2008 national player of the year by USA Softball, owns just about every record in the Tech record book, and in a fitting tribute to her, the Tech athletics department retired her No. 1 jersey less than four months after her departure.

Trying to shrug off the pressure of replacing a legend, Roark responded in the first year post-Tincher with a respectable 22-18 record and a 2.73 ERA as a sophomore, but no one could live up to Tincher’s legacy.

"My initial thought was that he [Thomas] was really nice, and I wanted to look up the school. My dad was like, 'They've got a pretty good football team.' But when I looked up stuff on the softball team, I was like, 'Mom, Dad, this team is good. This would be a good spot.'" – Kenzie Roark

“You don’t find pitchers like Tinch,” Roark said. “She’s a one-of-a-kind pitcher. You’d be fighting with yourself night and day if you try to be like her.

“I push myself to be as good as I can be. That’s what any pitcher does. But I don’t expect to throw 72 miles per hour, like she does. That’s not me. Physically, I’m never going to throw 72 miles per hour, but I’m going to push myself to the best of my ability.”

Roark and the Hokies went into last season, her junior year, expecting big things. The year marked the 15th of the program, with festivities planned to honor that anniversary. Not to mention, Blacksburg was serving as the host for the ACC Championships. On the field, the Hokies also got back the services of Misty Hall, a gifted slugger who sat out the 2009 season because of university-sanctioned suspension. Things looked rosy.

But the bloom died quickly. Hall got hurt and missed time, and so, too, did four other starters. The Hokies finished with a 25-33 record, bowing out of the ACC Championships with a season-ending 5-3 loss to Florida State.

“It’s been a rollercoaster,” Roark said of her career. “It started off pretty good, and then my sophomore year, it got kind of tough when we lost our catcher [Hall], and our middle infield was weak.

“Last year, we were plagued with the injury bug. It was crazy. Once everyone got healthy toward the end of the year, we saw what type of team we could be. We took two from Florida State [in the regular season] and beat UVa in the ACC tournament [a game she won, pitching a shutout]. We had huge things happen when we were healthy. It was just disappointing last year because we all feel if we had had that team on the field the whole year, it would have been a different story.”

Her senior year has been more of what she wanted and expected. She got the Hokies out of the gate quickly, winning eight of her first nine decisions, and she kept the Hokies in the ACC race with some terrific performances, including a couple against league contender Florida State.

In the first game of that series in Tallahassee, she went 10 innings and gave up one run – unearned – as Tech rallied to a 2-1 win. In the second game, she came on in relief of Jasmin Harrell and gave up just one earned run in 3.2 innings, getting the win when the Hokies scratched a run across in the eighth for the 4-3 victory.

These are the types of games that Tincher won with regularity. Roark keeps finding herself with the same opportunities, and with the exception of the occasional blip, continues to produce.

“Her work ethic, for sure,” Roark said of what she learned most from Tincher. “The one thing about pitching is that you have to go the extra mile because every other pitcher is going the extra mile and doing that extra stuff to get better. As you get older, these coaches have seen you, and they’re coaching their team how to hit you, so you have to outsmart the hitters every year.”

Kenzie Roark has been a leader for the Hokies in the circle this season, and she plans to get into coaching once her playing days are over.

She may not be on the same level as Tincher, but she quietly rates as one of the best ever to pitch at Tech. She ranks in the top five statistically at Tech in appearances, games started, complete games, ERA, wins, shutouts, saves and strikeouts.

She admits her most memorable moment came during that freshman season when she pitched against her home state Tennessee Volunteers. Proving her mortality, Tincher struggled in the second game of that series, and Tech trailed the Volunteers in the second inning (and ultimately lost the game). Thomas pulled Tincher and inserted Roark to face All-American Tonya Callahan, who still ranks as Tennessee’s all-time home run leader.

“I told Tiff [then pitching coach Tiffany McVay] before the game that I wanted to win this game so bad, and that I wanted to go in,” Roark said. “I hoped something would happen so that I would get to go in because I wanted to pitch against UT.

“I ended up getting put in during the second inning and pitched the remainder of the game. I came in and there were runners on base, and the first person I had to pitch to was Tonya Callahan. I was like, ‘Great.’ But I got her to ground out.

“That was a lot of fun. It was my home state, and it was the postseason. It was a lot of fun.”

Her softball fun may not be ending any time soon, though her playing career ends with the conclusion of this season. Roark plans on spending next year finishing up work toward her degree in interdisciplinary studies while working as a volunteer coach with the Tech softball team. She’s already giving lessons to young kids in her spare time and wants to get into coaching once she gets her degree.

“I’ve been giving lessons for a while, and I love that,” she said. “The age [of the kids receiving lessons] ranges from probably 9 to 14 or 15. A couple of them are kids from back home [in Mount Juliet], and then a couple came to me when Tiff left. She had been giving a few lessons, and when she left, she told them to call me. The rest of them have been from other lessons where people have talked to some of my other kids.

“Ultimately, though, I want to coach at the Division I level. I like the idea of fine tuning people and molding them.”

She’ll probably make a great coach. She’s been playing since the age of 6, and she learned a lot her freshman season from one of the nation’s best.

Playing softball has been fun, and she finds teaching it fun as well. So maybe the party isn’t going to be over for Kenzie Roark. Maybe it’s only beginning.